GaspeeVirtual Archives
The HMS Gaspee Prior to 1772--"Better Here Than in Philadelphia...."

by Dr. John Concannon

Webmaster, Gaspee Virtual Archives

The HMS Gaspee was apparently built as a single-masted sloop-of-war, part of a class of seven light, fast revenue cutters contracted by Admiral Colville for the British Royal Navy, and built in American shipyards (possibly some in Canada) along the Northeast coast.  The usual crew compliment was 19-26 sailors. According to the excellent Navy List database information kindly provided by CH Donnithorne, the Gaspee was purchased by an order of Lord Admiral Colville dated 07Jan1764.  For a more complete discussion on this topic, see: Rigging.html 

These revenue ships were devised to enforce the various trade laws (i.e., the Townsend Acts) of the British Empire as applied to American shipping.  As pointed out by Neil R. Stout in The Royal Navy in America, 1760-1775: A Study of Enforcement of British Colonial Policy in the Era of the American Revolution (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD  1973, p59:

These little vessels, the original coast guard cutters, proved to be the most useful craft in the North American command, because their fore-and-aft rigging enabled them to sail in weather too severe for the full-rigged men-of-war, and their shallow drafts allowed them to go into coves and creeks after smugglers.

These ships were not likely to ever have been conceived as being able to reliably transit the open ocean or to actually engage in a naval battle, as they were too lightly armed. In fact, the whole class of ships was withdrawn, sailed off to England, and sold off as surplus once the burning of the Gaspee in 1772 made it evident to the Admiralty that war with the American colonies was a distinct possibility (see Sultana.html). Rather, their purpose was to intercept unarmed civilian ships suspected of smuggling contraband into and out of American bases. Overall command of these ships rested with the Royal Navy in the area of the Halifax, Nova Scotia and Boston, Massachusetts ports. In 1772, this command was under the direction of Admiral John Montagu.  

The American Colonist did not appreciate the interference this fleet had on their sea trade, and referred to them disparagingly as "Spanish guarda costas". But, as Stout in The Royal Navy in America, p138 explains:

In defense of the navy, it must be said that most references to arrogant officers and officious seizures concerned the customs commissioners' deputies, not Royal Navy officers. Nevertheless, the navy was blamed along with the others, and Americans made no distinction between William Reid of the customs sloop Liberty and William Dudingston of the navy schooner Gaspee. The colonists considered both pirates and dealt summary "justice" to both.

The Captains' logs of the Gaspee are to be found in Royal Navy archives Admiralty Papers, Class 51: Accountant General's Department. Vol. 3853, 3856 and 4197.  From Admiralty records purchased (at great expense, might we add) from the National Archives (UK) we have what appear to be the re-copied pay records of the Gaspee, Ref#: ADM 33/645 and we get the following snippet:

Gaspee Schooner, Complement 30 Men. Began Wages the 28 Decemr 1763 and Sea Victualling in Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia the 22 June 1764.  Ended 14 October 1772
In analyzing the data from the pay records on discharge location of various crewmen, and by adding in previously known sightings of the Gaspee, we are able to recontruct the travels of the ship through the years.
Allen Period Location
Dudingston Period Location
July-Aug  1764 Philadelphia, PA
Sept.-Oct 1768 Halifax, NS
Sept 1764 Halifax, NS
Dec 1768 - Jan 1769 New York, NY
Dec 1764-Jan 1765 Portland, ME
Feb 1769 Casco Bay
Feb 1765 Halifax, NS
Apr 1769 Boston, MA
Mar-Apr 1765 New York, NY
Apr 1769 New York, NY
Apr 1765 Martha's Vineyard, MA
May 1769 Newport, RI
Apr-May 1765 Halifax, NS
June 1769 Philadelphia, PA
June 1765 Portsmouth, NH
July-Nov 1769 Delaware
June-July 1765 Boston, MA
Dec 1769 - Jan 1770 Boston, MA
Aug 1765 New York, NY
Mar 1770 Halifax, NS
Sept 1765 Boston, MA
Apr-Dec 1770 Sandy Hook, NJ & New Castle, DE
Feb 1766 Halifax, NS
Jan-Mar 1771 Wilmington, DE
Apr 1766 Martha's Vineyard, MA
May 1771 Rudy Island, DE
May 1766 Halifax, NS
June-July 1771 Cape May, NJ
Sept 1766 Boston, MA
July 1771 New Castle, DE
Jan-May 1767 New York, NY
July 1771 Rudy Island, DE
July 1767 Halifax, NS
July 1771 Philadelphia, PA
Aug 1767 New York, NY
July 1771 Rudy Island, DE
Sept 1767 Newport, RI
Sept 1771 Boston, MA
Oct 1767 Halifax, NS
Nov 1771 Cape Ann, MA
Nov 1767 -Aug 1768 New York, NY
Feb-June 1772 Newport, RI

Sandy Hook, NJ is located on the south coast entrance to New York harbor.  Cape May, NJ is located at the very southern tip of New Jersey, at the entrance of the Delaware River.  New Castle, Delaware is south of Wilmington, both on the Delaware River leading up to Philadelphia. We think that the now-defunct Rudy Island was in the Delaware River just west and south of New Castle, probably now filled in with development.  Although there are no references to this island obtained in a Google search, it is clearly marked on Fisher's  1776 Map of the Delaware River available on-line through the NY Public Library Digital Images Collection. Located at a narrow bend in the Delaware River, Rudy Island appears to be perfectly located to spot and interdict merchant ship traffic coming from both directions.

Over her 106 month existence, over 230 men had been variously assigned to the Gaspee at one point or another. Of interest, of her 230 crewmen, over 142 deserted the ship, and 8 died at one point or another; that's a 62% desertion rate, and a 4% death rate, and an attestation to the poor living and working conditions on the ship. The motivations for desertion were many.  Some were impressed seamen, taken from dockyards areas or from other merchant ships and forced involuntarily to work on His Majesty's Ships.  Such men were unlikely to stay when opportunity to escape presented itself.  Others may have been motivated by a ticket to travel elsewhere, perhaps hoping to escape from Europe to new opportunities available in the frontier of the New World.  Note that most crewmen were in their early twenties, full of hope for a new and exciting life, and full of hormones which could lead them astray at the very next port. Some may have been starving and looking for room and board however temporarily. As even in more modern times, some may have been running from things in their lives, such as wives, ex-lovers, debts, and the law.  Aliases could be easily taken, and most men were taken at their word.  After jumping ship, they need not fear recapture; the land was too vast for most search parties.  Impressment crews would rather take the first person they found that could serve as an able-bodied seaman, rather than search endlessly for someone who had deserted. Some of those who deserted undoubtedly ended up on other ships (probably at much higher pay), perhaps under different assumed names, while others may have stayed in America and assimilated into our society.  For an excellent review of life aboard a Royal Navy schooner, the HMS Sultana--a simaller sister ship of the Gaspee, see Porter's "Wood, Water, and Beef".

We know that the Gaspee plied all of the waters along the Northeast American coast long before she met her untimely demise in Narragansett Bay. After her post-commissioning sea trials in Halifax, she was next stationed out of Philadelphia, PA in July and August 1764, then took up station near Portland, ME (Casco Bay) until the spring thaw in 1765. The earliest outside reference we have found of the existence of the HMS Gaspee relates to an adventure in Casco Bay in December 1764: From  Stout, p62-63:

Lieutenant Thomas Allen, her commander, found vessels arriving and leaving "without so much as taking the least notice of the Custom house." Allen seized two or three ships, but the Customs Collector of Falmouth refused to hold them for prosecution. Meanwhile, several of the Gaspee's crewmen deserted, and one of her seizures, taking advantage of the depletion, made her escape. Left without enough hands to navigate the Gaspee safely, Allen impressed four merchant seamen, but a mob kidnapped him and made him release his new recruits. The lieutenant finally decided that "it would be no manner of purpose for him to remain longer there," so he made a last trip to the Falmouth customs house to turn his remaining two captures over to the collector. One of his oarsmen deserted while Allen was completing the transaction. The Gaspee limped back to Halifax minus seven of her best seamen, one midshipman, and her boatswain's mate, and, of course, with no prizes.

In summer of 1765, the Gaspee was dispatched from Halifax to Boston to render aid during the anti-taxation riots that eventually resulted in the abdication of Massachusetts Colonial Governor Francis Bernard. The Gaspee then intercepted a ship carrying the hated tax stamps and conveyed the cargo to safety at the British fort at Castle William out in Boston harbor (Stout, p92-93). 

Another early record of the existence of the HMS Gaspee comes from the last will and testament of one of its crew, apparently based in the New York City. From:  Tami, Chris. New York City Wills, 1706-90 Vol II. Ancestry. Inc. Orem, UT, 1999.

In the name of God, Amen. I, JOHN WALCOT, mariner, belonging to His Majesty's armed Sloop Gaspee, Thomas Allen, Commander, do for divers good causes, make this my last will and testament. I leave to my wife, Mary Walcot, of New York, all wages and money due to me from the Honorable Commissioner of the Navy, and whatever else I have, and I make her executor.

Dated October 28, 1765. Witnesses, Vincent Montanye, Samuel Dodge, Philip Pelton. (No Probate.)

This above item, written in 1765, gives credence to the idea that the Gaspee was originally constructed as a single-masted sloop. In the spring of 1768, the Gaspee was stationed off of Oyster Bay, New York and made several seizures of smuggling ships (Stout, p73-74). We also know that Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton was familiar with the ship but with Captain Thomas Allen as her commander proceeding Dudingston, so the Gaspee must've sailed in the vicinity of Newport, RI on two previous occasions in 1765 and 1767.

When not enforcing customs regulations, the Gaspee served as a tender to ships of the line along the American coast. It sailed on routine missions periodically to Royal Navy base in Halifax, NS.  From the British Admiralty Records we are able to find the following snippets in routine reports sent out to the Admiralty in England from the Halifax, Nova Scotia naval base by one Joseph Gerrish, shopkeeper:

7Apr1767 (ADM 106/1153/260)
The Gaspee arrived here from New York on the 3rd of last month with money and took some stores and some for the Coventry, by order of Captain Vincent. Is sending an account of expenses and list of bills drawn
29July1767 (ADM 106/1153/266)
The Romney, Captain Corner with Commodore Hood, arrived on the 5th and the Gaspee sloop, Lieutenant Allen, arrived from New York with a demand for carpenter's stores for the Coventry. ...The Sally Sloop, now the St Lawrence, was bought for Lieutenant Dundas and is being converted to a schooner.
19 Sept 1767 (ADM 106/1153/281)
The Gaspee has been refitted after coming ashore at Rhode Island and is taking this to New York. The Magdalen will be careened. Will order all the pilots to be discharged from the schooners as they come within my reach.
1 Oct 1767: (ADM 106/1153/290)
The Magdalen Schooner, Lieutenant Harvey arrived from Quebec 31st Aug for a refit and on the 7th the Gaspee, Lieutenant Allen came in from New York and sailed again the 20th. The St Lawrence is nearly completed as a schooner and will be ready to take in her stores in a few days.
These letters also confirm that the Admiralty was busy refitting single masted sloops as two masted schooners during this time period. Careening is the process of turning a ship on its side for cleaning, caulking, or repairing.  In reviewing these letters, it might appear that the Gaspee might have been refitted as a schooner right here in Rhode Island in 1767. Or perhaps they are referring to some accident where the Gaspee had run aground in RI and needed repairs. Theis last statement implies that the Gaspee somehow hit the beach and sustained some damage. But according to the Royal Navy Articles of War (1749), such an event would be cause for a court Martial, and no such event occurred until Dudingston later stood one for the loss of his ship in 1772. A refit does not necessarily mean changing the rig to a schooner rig or anything else about the vessel. The term refit includes repair with no changes as well as significant changes. It is possible that the opportunity of having her in for repair was taken advantage of to change her rig, but nothing in the statement, by itself, allows us to reach that conclusion unequivocally. A dockyard officer's report or the captain's log would be about the only ways to sort this out.

Bringing a vessel in for refit was replete with issues that had to be dealt with such as manning the station during her absence, housing the crew, possibly careening the vessel which would require removing all armament and stores and so forth. It was good management to get as much done during one refit as time and resources permitted. According to historians knowlegable in this field, assuming the availability of the necessary spars and cordage, a moderately skilled dockyard crew and the assistance of the Gaspee's boatswain and crew, a rerigging from a sloop to a schooner could probably accomplished in no more than three days. The ship would have to be floating on an even keel at the time the task was undertaken. The job could take even less time if she had been rigged as a schooner at any time during her history prior to being brought into the Royal Navy. This isn't entirely out of the question given the practices of the time.

But from the discussions found in elsewhere we can also suggest that the HMS Gaspee was refitted in the Philadelphia area as a schooner sometime afterwards.  This would most likely have before the time of the change of command from Captain Allen to Dudingston in September, 1768. Admiralty pay records give the precise date of the change of command as:
Thoms Allen, Lieutt & Commander discharged 12 Septr 1768 Superceded.

According to Gaspee pay records, Dudingston was assigned to command the ship on 26April1768, and first appeared 13Sept1768.  By 1769, the schooner Gaspee is reported to have seized several prizes off the coast of Massachusetts, after which she was moved to the Chesapeake Bay area. According to the following sources from Philadelphia, by late 1769 the Gaspee was referred to as a schooner;
Philadelphia Journal, June 29, 1769

    As the late outrageous and cruel treatment I have received from William Didingston, commander of the armed schooner Gaspey, David Hay, captain of the Train, is become the common topic of conversation, I think I am bound in justice to myself and the public, to give a full and true narrative of the whole matter –What was my case yesterday, may be the case of every freeman, who may unfortunately fall within the power of such cowardly insolent officers, who disgrace the commissions they hold, and who seem to think their office intitles them to treat their fellow subjects with outrage, insolence, and abuse.
    On the 26th inst. going a fishing with Mr. Thomas Pedrix, of Chester, I saw a top-sail schooner coming up.  As I wanted to speak with a Pilot, who I was informed was in such a schooner, I went near and hailed her, and asked what pilot was aboard?  The Captain of the Schooner replied that the pilot did not chuse to tell his name.  Such an uncivil, ungentleman-like answer provoked me to tell him, that a civil question deserved a civil answer, and I thought both the Captain and the Pilot blackguards.*— Upon which the Captain ordered out his boat and five men, to bring me on board, at the same time presenting his firelock, and swearing most violently, that he would fire at me, if I did not come along side directly.  All this time I had no apprehension of it being a King’s armed schooner.  When the boat came up the Cockson immediately seized me, and in a piratical manner dragged me into the boat and put me on the schooner, when the Captain accosted me with the most abusive language,--- Finding in what hands I had fallen, I endevoured to mollify him, by making all the concessions which a gentleman ought to demand.  I assured him that I did not know he was a King’s officer; that if I offended him I asked his pardon.  Just at this time happening to see Capt. Hay, to whom I was known, I appealed to him for my character, expected he would interpose his friendly offices.  But Capt. Hay, in a rude insulting manner said, “I know him very well, a tavern keeper in Chester, a damned horse-jockey.  They are all a parcel of damn’d rascals.”  Tho’ I heard much of the imperious insolence of the man, yet I was quite thunder struck at this instance of it.  He did not seem drunk, as it is said he was when he committed his violent outrage in Philadelphia some years ago, and attempted to assassinate a gentleman of that city. The words were no sooner out of Capt. Hay’s mouth than the commander of the schooner struck me in the face with his fist, and redoubled his strokes, which I endevoured to ward off, without offering to return a blow.  But in fending off his fist, my hand happened to touch his face; on which, with an oath, he cried out, “you rascal, will you strike me on my own vessel.”  I told him, I did not, that if my hand touched him, it was not designedly.  “You lie, you rascal,” said Capt. Hay, “How dare you strike a Captain of a man of war?”  With that they both fell upon me; at the same time calling for the mate, who seized and held my hands, while the commander and Hay both beat me in a most cruel manner.  When they had tired themselves with beating me, that they might add insult to cruelty, they ordered me to be put in irons, and as if nothing could glut their revenge they thrust me into the hold, where the commander swore he would keep me and would not suffer me to see the light, nor to have pen, ink, or paper, till he had carried me to Halifax.  When the commander found that all his threats and menaces did not break my spirit, trusting to the protection of the laws of my country, I defied his malice and insolence; His rage being somewhat abated, he ordered the boat with five men to put me on board my boat, if I would fall on my knees and ask his pardon—Finding he could not bring me to this, he ordered his men to carry me, bloody as I was, on board my boat, which was about  half a mile distant, and during this inhuman scene he would not suffer to come nigh the schooner.  DAVIS BEVAN.
*- a low, contemptible person; scoundrel.

An analysis of all this is found in Scharf J. Thomas and Thompson Wescott. History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884. Vol. I. L. H. Everts & Co, Philadelphia, PA, 1884, pages 16-17:
The general irritation was aggravated by the supercilious behavior of the king's representatives and officers, military, naval, and civil.  They had always expressed contempt for the provincials as an inferior order of people; now they looked upon them as already rebels.  Numerous contemporary accounts may be found, in Graydon and other journal-keepers of the day, of the extremes to which this sort of thing was carried.  The captain of the royal armed schooner "Gaspee" (the same burned a year or two later by the New Englanders) was noted for his brutality. He and his officers maltreated Davis Bevan, a citizen of Chester County, put him in irons, and otherwise abused him. Bevan, in return, sued them for ill treatment.  The people were no longer in a frame of mind to submit to things which they would not have noticed five or six years before.  They quarreled with the captain of a sloop-of-war for firing a salute on arriving in port,  They accused the customs collector and naval officer of extorting illegal fees.  The women took part in the quarrel also, and it was every day more and more noticeable that the spirit of union was diffusing itself among the colonies, each part and section espousing as its own the grievance of every other part.
And on Pages 33-34:
Shortly afterward (October, 1769) there was an affray on the Delaware River caused by the brutality of Capt. William Diddington, commander of the royal armed schooner "Gaspee," who, with David Hay, sized Davis Bevan, a citizen of Chester County, who had been fishing in the Delaware, near Chester, and maltreated him. This event added to the discontent.
The earlier incident from was decried in the  Pennsylvania Journal, 29 June 1769 where Dudingston was considered  "cowardly, insolent", and a "disgrace to his commission."  and was even reported as widely as the Newport Mercury on July 17, 1769.

In September 12, 1771, The Virginia Gazette reported the Gaspee schooner to be with Admiral Montagu's blue fleet in Boston harbor.  This occasion was probably related to the change of command ceremonies wherein Adminral John Montagu assumed command of the Royal Navy Northeast America section from Commodore James Gambier

The following is highly conjectural, but we can't help ourselves, so we include here a snippet about an unnamed customs schooner in the vicinity of Philadelphia in 1771, possibly the Gaspee.  Form pay records we do actually know the Gaspee was in the vicinity from April 1770 to at least July 1771. From:  Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. Oxford: New York. 1982.

...a Customs schooner captured a colonial vessel accused of smuggling but then was taken itself by a crowd which seems to have included several important merchants from Philadelphia. The crowd beat up the captain and the crew of the Customs schooner before stowing them in the hold. Before the night's work was completed, the schooner's prize disappeared with the crowd.12

12. Ian R. Christie and Benjamin W. Labaree, Empire or Independence, 1760-1776: A British-American Dialogue on the Coming of the American Revolution ( New, York, 1976), p154-155

We can also see that old Bill Dudingston was well known for his bad disposition well before he entered Rhode Island waters. Dudingston was ultimately promoted to Rear-Admiral, even after the Gaspee Affair, so he was probably content with his lot in life. It must've been a dislike for the climate...or maybe he really did harbor a deep hatred for the Americans he outwardly so disdained by the time he and the Gaspee arrived to their new station in Newport in February, 1772
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Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 4/2003    Last Revised 5/2013   GaspeePriorTo1772.htm